It’s hard not to feel hopeless while watching Eugene O’Neill’s Long Days Journey into Night. The day after I saw Arena Stage‘s production of this three hour masterpiece on how to tear your family apart, the headlines were full of stories proving the play’s relevancy to our times. Sales of the two most popular prescription painkillers (oxycodone and hydrocodone, of the opioid category) have risen dramatically in new areas of the US. Concurrent with the increase in sales is the increase in overdose deaths and pharmacy robberies. It’s an addiction problem that begins not with recreational use, but with using the medication initially for pain.
Just like poor Mary Tyrone, hooked on dope for decades following a difficult birth in a sordid hotel.
Played by the radiantly distraught Helen Carey, this long-suffering mother seems the proper focus for the play’s maelstrom of guilt and self-deceit. The whole family is caught in a continuous cycle of devastating returns to the past and an inability to escape. It’s a harrowing seesaw of emotions for an audience to endure. Luckily, director Robin Phillips introduces just enough laughter intermixed with the morbidity to allow us to hope.
But, it’s apparent as a society we have a long way to go to shake the yoke of the “poison” Mary takes. To call it a matter of willpower is a tragic misunderstanding. The Tyrones certainly aren’t able to exert any willpower about anything, as they repeatedly rip up each other in the present in an effort to win in the past.
Beyond the drug addiction at the forefront of the play, the Tyrone family is tragically addicted to the blame game. Guilt and blame are as much a part of their self-destruction as alcohol and morphine. The vein they most often tap is the past. Patriarch James Tyrone Sr. (Peter Michael Goetz) could’ve been as big as Booth if he hadn’t wasted his talent performing year after year in an easy, flashy spectacle play. Sons James Jr. (Andy Bean) and Edmund (Nathan Darrow) would rather hit the bottle or the bordello than succeed at anything. And mother Mary could’ve been a nun or a concert pianist if she hadn’t fallen in love with that cheap bastard. Over and over, the same accusations.
O’Neill was clearly working some things out with his (posthumously awarded) Pulitzer-winning play. Set in 1912, the play was published in 1956, three years after his death (originally it was not to be released until 25 years after his death). It’s that letter you’ve always wanted to write to your parents or your lover, but thankfully, you don’t. Of course this being O’Neill, it’s a gorgeously written poison pen, with poetic monologues and stinging repartee.
With language this beautiful the play doesn’t need much else to succeed, and Phillips rightly keeps his production design simple. Set in an austere beach house that’s gorgeously designed by Hisham Ali (set) and accented by Michael Whitfield (lights) and Susan Benson (costumes), it provides just the right nod to time and place. The ensemble also keeps things simple, focusing on the interactions between the family quartet and their maid Cathleen (Helen Hedman), alternating between tender and acerbic. Carey and Goetz masterfully etch a sad portrayal of a couple whose essential love you don’t doubt, if only they could’ve risen above their restrictive expectations of each other. Bean and Darrow only shine best when out of the parents’ spotlight, really revving up once they reach their tragic duet of sibling rivalry. Naturalism is the hallmark of this ensemble, and the almost casual top note of their acting allows for the barbs to hurt in a way that is painfully truthful.
Watching Long Days Journey into Night can feel like a marathon, as it taps into every hidden feeling we may have about our families and ourselves. Dysfunction is an addiction in of itself – who truly knows how best to break the habit – but Arena’s production of O’Neill’s shattering exploration filled me with the desire to simply forgive.
Long Day’s Journey into Night performs through May 6 in the Kreeger at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater as part of the Eugene O’Neill Festival. Arena Stage is located at 1101 Sixth Street NW, Washington DC 20024. Closet Metro stop: Waterfront (Green line). For more information call 202.554.9066.